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on NORTHERN LIGHTS and ARABIAN NIGHTS

It is 39 degrees at 4 a.m., and I am standing in my bathrobe and slippers along the shore of Portage Lake in the Keweenaw Peninsula, on the far northern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I am basking in the wonder of the northern lights, and I am trying to think profound thoughts.

The fact that I am awake owes a lot to my cat, Shadow. Like his master, Shadow has not slept well in recent weeks. Or, should I say, because of his master. Like a large percentage of my fellow Americans, my last trouble-free night of sleep came Monday, Sept. 10.

At any rate, I have been getting up earlier and earlier. For a writer like myself, that isn't all bad: I treasure peaceful morning hours, that first cup of coffee alone in the quiet of predawn.

So here Shadow and I are, the warmth of a perfectly good bed left behind, and the aurora borealis above.

The first time I saw the aurora borealis was through the screen window atop an outhouse door, at the Fort Wilkins State Park campground in nearby Copper Harbor, Mich. The area is the last stop in the Keweenaw. From Fort Wilkins, you are either swimming or in a boat: Thunder Bay, Ontario, is out there, about 100 miles across foreboding Lake Superior.

Anyway, I was 7 or 8 years old when I first saw the aurora, about as impressed as any kid would be with a thing of significant beauty.

About 35 years later, there are still outhouses at Fort Wilkins, for those too tired or too cold to endure the trek from a campsite all the way to the modern facilities near the entrance to this state park.

And 3{ decades later, the road to Copper Harbor, U.S. 41, is still shrouded in its last few miles by the Tunnel of Trees, old-growth pines, maples, birches and other assorted hardwoods bending over the road from both sides to form a canopy.

This is the same U.S. 41 that wends its lanes of stop-and-go misery through Tampa, Bradenton and Sarasota, finishing up as the Tamiami Trail in utter and complete exhaustion somewhere near Miami.

For those who enjoy its pleasurable northern reaches, U.S. 41 is full of surprise and the occasional sublime touch.

Near the town of Phoenix, about 30 miles south of Copper Harbor, there is a monument to this region's legendary winters: a giant "thermometer" that daily marks the annual snowfall for the Keweenaw Peninsula. There is a mark permanently affixed at the 390-inches level, more than 32 feet, the record set in the winter of 1976-77.

About a mile after it passes Copper Harbor, U.S. 41 just ends. There is a small cul-de-sac, and having made the turnaround, the first thing a motorist sees, facing south, is an official mileage sign: Miami Fl 1990.

The snowfall, the Tunnel of Trees and, these many years later, the northern lights anchor this isolated place in time. Standing here, in the aurora's blanket of luminescence, snow dusting my bare ankles with icy pinpricks even as Shadow licks my shins with a warm, rough tongue, I tilt my head way back and breathe it all in.

Like so many Americans now, I think about exotic places such as Peshawar, Pakistan, and Kabul, Afghanistan. I think about men whose names are now permanently in my mind and on my lips. And that I hate this.

I think back to that time as a kid, when along with my regular diet of Hardy Boys mysteries and Highlights magazines, there were National Geographics, television movies, classic books and Bible stories. They were replete with wondrous tales of Arabian nights, mystical journeys on camelback; they swept a little boy away on magic carpet rides.

I am still carried away by romantic notions of exotic locales, with their chaotic milieu of ancient people and places, dusty back streets and crowded bazaars where mystery and even danger lurk. It is Casablanca and the casbah; Lawrence of Arabia meets David Niven and the British Raj.

So now I, like most everyone else, will go on living life to the fullest extent possible, will grab hold of and appreciate beauty wherever I can find it. Even if that means getting up at 4 a.m. to stand in the cold, enjoying a gift from above.

Dave Bartlett splits his time between Michigan's Upper Peninsula and St. Petersburg.

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